Copywriter Adam Bensman is our guest for the 147th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. We’ve gotten to know Adam over the past few months and are very impressed with the business he’s built. While so many copywriters struggle to find decent paying clients, Adam has built a great business working with a few, high-paying clients—and still has plenty of time at the end of the day for recreation and fun. We asked Adam about:
• how he went from door to door sales to copywriter (with a few stops in between)
• how he compensates for the “missing advantages” of face to face sales when you’re writing email (or sales pages)
• why you need to couple empathy with pain when you “agitate the pain”
• how to join the conversation in your prospect’s head
• the template he uses when he sits down to write for clients
• establishing boundaries and how it can change your business
• how Adam defines his niche (it’s not the regular way)
• the connection secret he used to find clients that fit in his niche
• the value he creates for his clients (and how he presents it)
• pricing… what Adam used to do and what he does today
• what a typical project looks like (and what Adam does to complete it)
• success fees and how it makes it work for his clients
• how to think bigger about your business
We say this a lot, but this is a good one. To hear everything Adam has to share, click the play button below or download this episode to your favorite podcast player. Rather read? Scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:Joseph Sugarman
Sales Email Formula
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
Intro: Content (for now)
Rob: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes, and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Kira and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Kira: You’re invited to join the club for episode 147 as we chat with copywriter Adam Bensman about his approach to finding high-paying clients and building a business to support his lifestyle, making the time to value switch, how he finds the right clients and prices his projects, and what all copywriters can do to think bigger about their businesses.
Kira: Welcome, Adam.
Adam: Hey. Thank you, Kira and Rob. It’s great to be here.
Rob: Yeah, it’s good to have you here.
Kira: All right, Adam. So let’s start with your story. How did you end up as a copywriter?
Adam: My original background was in psychology and natural medicine, and when I moved to Madison, Wisconsin to pursue that venture, I was making no money in that field. And I set out to put food on the table, literally. I mean, I was that broke.
So, I fell into door-to-door sales selling roofing, and from there worked my way up to be the COO of a multi-state roofing and storm restoration company. And when I left that space from burnout, I started in the consulting world. And I was writing all of our direct mail at that company when I was COO, and then when I was doing consulting, I was providing some of those service for clients, not really even understanding that there was a copywriting profession in existence.
And I went on to co-found kind of an email marketing-type SaaS for the niche that I came from. And we went six months with zero sales. It was me and one partner. And I was sending emails out to our list that I had built, to past clients. I was posting on LinkedIn, posting on Facebook and engaging all the Facebook groups. We literally went six months with zero sales.
And when I kind of reached this breaking point, it was like, we needed to turn the ship around. So, I found an opportunity to joint venture with someone in our space, share their list. And I said, ‘Hey, I’ll write a promo series for you as long as I can promote our products.’ And I just poured my heart and soul into these three emails that I was able to write through this list, and looked at all the things I couldn’t control when selling in person, which I was really good at, and figured out how I can control them in an email.
So, I put together this three-email sequence and drove a $100,000 in contracted sales out of those three emails in a week. And I said, ‘Wow, I’m onto something. Six months, zero sales, $100,000 in a week. This is awesome.’
So, at that point, I was super fired up, and I said, ‘Hey, I’d love to do this for a living.’ And I didn’t even know it existed. So long and short of it, picked up my first client as a copywriter from that specific email sequence. I ended up parting ways with my business partner. Just, you know how those go. We were doing well, and it just wasn’t a good fit for us to be working together. And when we parted ways, I just set out to do it. And the rest is history.
Rob: I love when you’re talking about taking the sales process and making it work in email, when mention all the things that you can’t control, and how do you make it so that you can make that adjustment in email. Can you talk a little bit about those things that you don’t control or that are out of your control and how you compensate for that when you write copy?
Adam: So what I found when I was doing door-to-door sales, and I train sales teams across the US and Canada, there are certain elements when you’re selling in person where you can read body language. You can reel back in attention. You can spike your voice. You can use body language. And for me in in-home sales, I knew if I was invited to the kitchen table, nine times out of 10 I was walking out of there with a signed contract. But I also had the opportunity to bring in sample boards, to walk them out and point to the customers across the street or down the street that I’ve done, to show up, hold a sample board so they can visualize theirs. So, there’s these tactile and tangible experiences that you can deliver to someone when you’re selling in person
And when you are selling in the written word, you can’t control those pieces. So, I sat down, and I was trying to figure, ‘Okay, how do I get them to visualize this? How do I get them to believe that I am the expert? How do I reel back attention?’ And I realized ultimately through doing that that it’s about putting the right content in the right order. And I still say to this day, and I know we’re not going to get much into the writing process, but good writing is assembled. It’s not really written. I mean, there’s Joseph Sugarman who said that, and I completely agree.
So I strategically place in sequence the hook, the opener, how I talk about pain. I don’t just say, ‘Hey, are you sick and tired of being 30 pounds overweight?’ Breaking up that up into, ‘I know what it’s like to be 36 pounds overweight, wake up every morning, stand on the scale, open my Facebook newsfeed, see a picture of myself, feel embarrassed, put my pants on and I can’t get my belt buckle to buckle…’ Like, getting into that level of specificity in terms of empathy instead of just pain.
Where to put in the social proof, how to get people to visualize about using future pacing of what their life or business or home is going to look like when we’re done working together, as opposed to standing there with… Now there’s even new tools, visualizers and all this stuff.
So, controlling the uncontrollable, I think, is the struggle that we all face as copywriters. And that was my big breakthrough, because I was really, really a solid salesperson, and when I tried to do it in writing, I just flopped. And I thought I was amazing at it, too, which was funny. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a great writer. I was great at sales. I can do this.’ And I realized that when I would write trying to sell, people could feel it. They could feel that I was trying to sell. And when I reread that copy now, I’m like, ‘Gosh, that was sleazy and salesy, and people see through it.’
So, I hope that answers your question. If not, I’m happy to dive back in.
Rob: No, it definitely does. And it feels to me like also the different between in-person sales is that you have that opportunity to address objections as they come up, whereas when you’re email or a sales page you’ve going to be able to anticipate some of that stuff. So are there tricks that you use in order to come up with not just the selling argument and getting them to picture themselves with future pacing using the product or the service or whatever, but able to anticipate the objections they’re going to have? And how do you address those in copy as well?
Adam: That is an awesome question. And I can’t believe… It’s funny. Every time I talk about controlling the uncontrollable, objections are the number one thing I focus on, and today I completely spaced it.
Yeah, the answer to that is joining the conversation that’s going on in the prospect’s mind as they’re reading it. And this is the hardest part that I feel like is a skill I’ve refined over the years writing, is how do I view my copy objectively?
And I think we could all relate to this. Writing for ourselves is slower than writing for a client, because we’re too close to it. So if I make a statement that says, ‘I can help you increase the click-through rate on your emails by five times,’ your first question would be, ‘How?’ Right? And whenever you make a claim in your copy that is a strong claim, there will be a question. If you make a statement of the results you drive, there will be a question.
So any time we’re making a statement, we can either address those head-on by just sliding into the answer, like, ‘Hey, I can help you 3X your click-through rate or 5x your click-through rate in your emails,’ and you’re thinking, ‘How?’ I might just start going into, ‘The way I do that is…’ and then explain it. But what I’ve found to be most effective, especially in more conversational copy mediums, certain sales pages, and specifically sales emails, would be to join that conversation head-on by saying, ‘I’m sure you’re wondering how in the world I can make such a strong claim.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, I am wondering that.’
And if you leave any objections unanswered, that’s when you lose readers, because they lose faith, in my experience. And they just say, ‘Hey, I don’t believe this guy. It’s a false claim.’ So, in terms of controlling the uncontrollable, that’s the biggest thing, is objections, understanding when they’re going to have a question, when and how to showcase the social proof, to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done it. Here’s the proof behind it.’ And I really do like stating questions up front. It just shows a different level of authenticity as well than just sliding into the explanation. So, depending on the copy medium, the familiarity with the list or the audience, and what type of email we’re sending will dictate whether or not I just address that question head-on or answer it knowing that they’re asking it in their mind.
Kira: So to dive deeper into assembling copy, because I love that idea of assembling copy, do you start with any type of framework, or do you have your own kind of templates that help you start to assemble the copy in a way that flows and makes sense to the reader?
Adam: That is a super question, Kira. And the answer is yes. Nine times out of 10, I have kind of developed and refined my own copywriting template that I’ve dubbed the sales email formula. And even though I call it the sales email formula, I use it for… I have three monitors at my work station, and I have that one up when I write emails. If I’m writing a sales page, I use that as a starting reference point. Obviously it’s going to be more long-form. But that template that I created is essentially a 12-step process of the 12 key ingredients that I need to build into my copy.
So starting with the hook, calling out the target audience, moving into your pain/empathy story, your passive call to action, so you can link through to your… whatever’s next in the funnel. Again, this would be through an email. Up there. Followed by your social proof and so on and so forth. So I use that, and what I’ve found is, it eliminates a lot of the writer’s block, because creative ideas flow.
And the nice thing about having a formula-like approach… And I think everyone should do it based on what mediums you write. I spend probably 80% of my time in email. Email, sales pages, squeeze pages, and webinar funnels. So majority of what I do is email. So that’s why I put together that backbone.
I call it the profit-bearing skeleton of an email, right? The language you use, the words you use, are they important? Absolutely. But most people overemphasize their poetic or playful use of language over the right information in the right order. And I find that the right information in the right order is more powerful than anything.
And I’ve jumped in on projects. I’m working with someone now who historically, and I’ve had to match brand voice, they never hyperlink. They copy-paste links even if they’re like 400 characters long. You know?
Kira: No way.
Adam: Super short. And it’s just how they do it. They’re still using a seven-figure business using Gmail. Literally. Their name at Gmail.com. And it built a tribe, so you got to match it. And I’ve even played with certain emails with their list, extracting certain elements.
So that being said, despite having a framework, I know that, when done right… Dean Jackson preaches about the quote-unquote ‘nine-word email,’ which I think is really effective. But I’ve played with that concept, and I’ve done very short emails that eliminate a lot of the elements of a sales email but are simply looking for a response, and ended up, just not long ago, driving 180,000 in sales from one email for a four-person agency. We didn’t even send all the other promo emails or even launch the sales page we developed, because we oversold on retainers based on one email.
So yes, I have a framework, and there are times when I bend the rules and do things based on intuition or reengaging a stale list strategically just to start conversations.
Kira: That framework sounds like a very good download, free download, lead magnet, because I want to get my hands on that. That sounds great.
Rob: You’re all about 12-step programs, Kira. Is that-
Kira: 12-steps? Sign me up. I’m in. Where do I sign up?
Kira: So you’ve mentioned your story that you were selling roofing, and then you mentioned burnout somewhere in the story, and so you pivoted. Can you just talk a little bit more about that initial burnout and some lessons, maybe even business or life lessons, you took from that burnout?
Adam: Absolutely. When I started in door-to-door sales, at that point I was literally earning $19,000 a year before I made the switch. And my breaking was literally having to call a family member to say, ‘Hey, I need money to come visit family for the holiday. I literally cannot afford gas.’ And when I made that shift, the hustle was on. I went from broke to, ‘I need to earn a living.’ And to me, I had no idea what that even meant. And I earned my first six figures in eight months.
So I 5Xed my income, and my focus was 100% income. And that continued for about five years. And when I was COO of the company, my phone was ringing off the hook. I did not have a day off. I was commuting an hour and a half, so a hundred-mile drive each way, to our office, plus all the driving in between customers’ homes. And before my wedding, was commuting from Wisconsin to Wyoming, which, let me tell you, is not very close.
Rob: Oh geeze. That’s a horrible drive.
Adam: Yeah, and I was driving, and then I got so busy that I was flying. I had to buy a second vehicle to keep it home, because my primary truck was out there.
So I was on pace to take over the company at this point. And I was sitting on a beach on my honeymoon, with my wife obviously, and we just had… I had a very good friend of mine take his own life, and then my wife’s young cousin died of esophageal cancer within like six months. And that planted the question of, is it worth it? All the money in the world isn’t worth it. And it’s a trap that I have fallen into, and I have to continually check myself that it’s not just about the income. It’s not just about the income.
So I literally quit. I was on pace to be earning multi six figures, and I left with literally nothing lined up, and decided that life was too short to be focusing on this traditional avenue of accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, and then one day retire when you’re at this arbitrary age in your 60s, which is often past your physical prime. And I set out to create a lifestyle business where I could live a semi-retired life and enjoy it the whole time as opposed to saving it for one day in the future.
Rob: Okay. So to follow up on that, if somebody is feeling like they’re in a rut or they’re approaching burnout, are there things that you did, aside from quitting and walking away from it all, are there little exercises or things that you did to try to regain the fire, the passion to reengage? Or do you really have to just turn it all off and go a different direction?
Adam: Super personal for each person. For me, I’m an extremist. I don’t do things with a toe in the water. I’m either building the parachute on the way down or taking the flight up. So that’s just how I do things. So for me, I went to an extreme and figured out… I defined what I call non-negotiables, and I’m sure there’s other business and life coaches that call them that, but to me, I have a few non-negotiables.
One is my diet. I eat a very specific diet. Number two is sleep. If I’m not sleeping right, I am not functioning in any aspect of my life. Obviously health is one, but to define that for me was exercise, diet, sleep, and family. And those came first. And that’s how I dictated my choices.
And then from there, I took control of my schedule. I had some very difficult conversations to have. So when I was approaching burnout in my copywriting career, I went through my book of business, wrote down my income goals, and defined exactly who I was meant to serve, so my niche, which, I chose a niche that’s very different than how most people do. I literally fired a bunch of clients. And I sold $15,000 in a week of packages that I was going to fulfill in four weeks, and I refunded 100% of that money, because I decided it wasn’t a good fit, and I was excessively, excessively stressed out.
So drawing firm boundaries, taking control of my schedule. This is a rare exception today, but normally from 10:30 AM to noon is deep work time. No distractions. Headphones on. I buckle down. I actually got that feedback from somebody on The Copywriter Club Facebook group, that insight. I wish I remembered their name so I could give them a shout-out. But then I do lunch, and then I have another break. So I have very strict schedule when people can meet, and I’ve drawn some very strict boundaries with clients.
And I have set very crystal clear expectations out of the gate on availability so I don’t get bombarded with the last-minute requests, weekend requests, ‘8:30 at night we need this email out’ type of things. So very strict boundaries and sticking to those knowing that you could risk losing a client. But if you can get that strict on taking control of your own boundaries and your own schedule, that to me was an absolute, absolute game changer.
Kira: I think it’s easy to hear about your boundaries and think, especially if you’re a newer copywriter, think that, ‘Well, I can’t set those boundaries yet because I’m new. I have to put in the time and just say yes to everything.’ What advice would you give to someone who maybe is in the beginning, early stages of their business but desperately need to set boundaries as well?
Adam: This is another lesson I can attribute to someone in a mastermind I was part of. And he said to me… Because I’ve faced this same thing. I’m a people pleaser. I want my clients to love me. I build client relationships that last for years. And I always would question, ‘Well, how do I say no? Are they going to leave working with me to find someone who will bend over backwards for them?’
And this gentleman said to me, he goes, ‘Adam, how you respond to clients is training them how they can communicate with you.’ And when I heard that, I was like, ‘Man, that’s kind of wild, but let me think back on this.’
And I had one client specifically who’s been more of a handful. I’m talking 20, 30 emails a day at times. And it’s a lot to handle. And I was responding. I had this thought that they just expected me to respond at all hours, 24/7. And I stopped, and I was like ‘Wow, the reason they’re doing is because I would engage.’ If I got an email at 9:00 at night, I’d respond.
So however you’re responding to your clients, you are training them on what’s appropriate and what to expect from you. So for me, I have eliminated my email from my home screen on my phone. I don’t have any notifications to check my email. I need to purposefully check it. And I’ve exercised great discipline. After 5:30 at night, I do not check work email, with rare exception if I’m waiting on something.
But I purposefully don’t respond. If I get weekend emails, I purposefully don’t respond. And it just sets a very clear expectation. And I’ve found that when you train people that way, it’s amazing how many people will respond accordingly and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I know you don’t respond on weekends, so can you respond Monday?’ But you will train these people, even if you don’t think it’s possible, how to communicate with you.
And I have completely reshaped my relationship with this one client specifically. I didn’t even say anything. I just changed my behavior and how I engage with him.
Kira: What else would you do with boundaries, that’s a great idea as far as training, but initially with a new client, to set boundaries from day one?
Adam: I edited my proposals. So what I do is, right away I will put in, ‘You can expect me to be working on your projects during these times.’ So I list it out. And for me, I have clients all over the world, so I have time zone issues, so I start my days… I used to start at about 6:00 AM, and I realized it was just too early to have a morning. So for me, I’d say, ‘I’ll work on projects from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM. That’s when you can expect a response from me. I am only available Monday through Friday. Any requests need X amount of time for turnaround.’ So they know out of the gate. There’s no mystery.
I basically try to remove any gray area possible, and I let everybody know that I am shut down for appointments between 12:30 and 2:00 because that’s when I need to put on my creative hat and I am deeply, deeply involved in their copy or a client’s copy. So all that is listed right on any of my agreements that I work with people now, so they just know what to expect right out of the gate.
And I talk about it. I don’t count on them reading it, because not everyone reads all the fine print in a proposal.
Rob: Yeah, no kidding. So Adam, you mentioned that you’ve defined your niche very differently than what most copywriters do, or that you have a very different niche. Will you talk about how you came to work in the niche that you do and the kinds of projects that you work on today, the kinds of clients that you work with?
Adam: This is like the Marketing 101 that all of us know. Find your niche. Find your target market. And at least for me and a lot of people I talk to now, especially other freelancers, talk about trying to define their niche based on industry. I don’t know why niche and industry go hand-in-hand. My niche that I realized I’m excellent at is not an industry. It’s a sales cycle.
So for me, my target client is selling a premium priced or high ticket service between two and 15 thousand dollars, and their sales cycle begins with a phone call. That’s my niche. So I work with attorneys. I’ve worked with CPAs. I work heavily in the finance space. I also work with a semi-custom, high-end mountain bike manufacturer. Some price point, but different… That’s a long shot from an attorney. I also work in the coaching space very heavily, so I work with a lot of industry experts. I’ve worked with some New York Times bestselling authors, folks like that. And it’s all the same process.
So what I’ve done is I say, ‘Hey, I work with people who have this sales process instead of a specific industry.’ And I also found that those types of people… Which, I might be getting ahead of you here, Rob, but that was where my strength was, was driving phone calls and then helping teams close those sales, and then the right follow-up sequence. So it’s a very specific set of needs of, how do I attract and build my list? How do I convert my list into sales call? How do I close the sale while I’m on the call? And then how do I maximize sales after the call? And obviously warming up, I know, and that goes beforehand, but warming those prospects up so they’re hot to buy before they even jump on the sales call. And that’s where I’ve found my biggest wins.
The way that I came to that conclusions, by the way, is I was sitting down looking through my book of business. I realized that there were some trends looking through. And I said, ‘Hey, I have this like…’ The 80/20 rule.’ 80% of my clients were very low-paying, and 20% were paying a lot and gave me consistent work.
So I started to identify some criteria, because I won’t work with any company who is in that niche. There are some check boxes that need to be checked. And I just started looking for trends.
And this wasn’t easy, by the way. I was like, ‘Man, there’s a lot of coaches I’m working with. There’s a lot of professionals that I’m working with. There’s people in finance I’m working with.’ And when I really started to identify what the trend was, that’s how I came to that niche.
Rob: So how do you find clients in a niche like that? Because a lot of we’ll say, ‘Hey, go hang out where your clients hang out.’ But you’re working with people across industries, and so they’re probably not all hanging out together. How do you find them?
Adam: I am fortunate enough to this day to have never spent a dime on advertising. My website sucks. And I’ve literally done cold outreach to one client, and that was that mountain bike company I was telling you about. That’s because it’s a hobby project and a passion of mine. They’re a local company. Outside of that, everything has been by way of referral.
And people, and especially newer copywriters, I’m sure, because I know I would have felt like this, like, ‘Well, how do I get referrals if I don’t have work yet?’ It’s a pipe dream, right? And it really isn’t. Finding the right verticals and the right people that share your target market is the answer.
In mine, I was… I think success is a combination of luck and keeping your eyes open to the right opportunity, and I had both happen side by side, where I served for a client that I had had. He was working with an Infusionsoft guy. And I had sent my copy over to this Infusionsoft guy to get it built up. So then the next thing I know, all of a sudden he’s sending me referrals left and right, because he was waiting on copy from clients that weren’t producing it. So then he says, ‘Hey, work with Adam, because it’ll get done faster, and he’ll do a better job.’ And that pipeline continued.
And then I started to find out that other Infusionsoft companies had the same issue. They were great in the tech space but not the writing space, and they relied on clients for it, or their clients didn’t have time or didn’t want to do it. So I found the right people that served the right clients. And Infusionsoft, being not cheap, attracts larger companies by nature that have bigger budgets.
So through that, and then engaging in different circles, making sure I spend time meeting like-minded people, whether it’s Facebook advertising folk who are writing the front end and they need someone to write the back end… So just finding those different niches that serve our target market.
So I said, ‘Who has a successful business? Who already has an infrastructure and a team? Who’s already spending money? And who are the vendors they’re using?’ And I just started connecting with those vendors.
And knowing the right time to do favors for people and when to say no. There’s certain times. I had a gentleman reach out once, and he wanted me to audit his sales page. Normally I’d charge for it. And he was a very, very, very well-connected gentleman. And I ended up through him being connected with one of the finance industry’s most influential women with an email list near two million that I got to write for. And now she recently sold the business.
So it’s through those relationships and finding the right types of relationships that share my same target market was how I did it.
Kira: This is getting down to the basics, but when you are building this new relationship with someone who is in a similar space, how do you approach that relationship, especially if it’s online via an email, Facebook message. Are you offering something initially? Or is it like… I know it’s not, ‘Let me pick your brain,’ but what would that look like?
Adam: I never had to do any of the cold outreach to establish those relationships. I kind of fell into them by way of a network of referrals. But what I have always done… And I’ve found any single, specifically Infusionsoft, agency, they need this work. They need copywriters. And as people grow their services to design and funnel design, they don’t want to write copy, or the client-provided copy is slow. So I would address them when I talk with them to get more referrals, and I’d say, ‘Hey, listen. I’d be more than happy to help you out. I know that this is a big pain point for agencies like you. You’re either waiting on copy from the client, which slows down your workload…’ And more often than not slows down receivables, because we all kind of have a similar billing rate up front, and then projects paid upon completion. And when projects are held up, we’re all held up on getting paid. So when I just casually talk with these folks…
And this could be easily built into a cold outreach on LinkedIn or an email to say, ‘Hey, I’ve worked with Infusionsoft, or active campaign or automation companies, or funnel building companies, and what I do is I help them solve a problem that helps them, one, get more results for their clients, two, get paid faster, and three, stop bogging down their workload. So what I do is I provide turnkey copywriting services for the same types of clients that you likely serve, and I’d be more than happy to set up a chat.’
And I would always find a way, no matter what. To me, the relationships are the most valuable thing out there. And I don’t mean monetarily, although monetarily that is true. But in terms of who we know is more important than what we know.
I just got a referral for a project I’m working on now that was from a corporate attorney. And after he reached out to me, I got on the phone with him. I said, ‘Daniel, I will do everything in my power to make you look like a hero for referring me.’ And I just make it a point to go above and beyond and make them super happy, because I know that networking with someone who has the power to send me 10 referrals is far more valuable than any funnel I’d ever build to get one client or two clients or three clients. Because I have brand ambassadors that all I have to do is show up on the phone and chat with them about what I can do, and they want to work with me. And I don’t have to sell. And I love that.
Kira: Can we talk about pricing and how you structure your projects?
Kira: Share all the details. How do you do it?
Adam: So Kira, is it okay if I share kind of the backstory of what I used to do?
Kira: Yeah. What you used to do, and what you do today. That would be great.
Adam: So this was an evolution. I was working with a client, and I saw that their WordPress designer sold what they called time blocks, and it was basically pre-purchased time, and everything had a flat rate. So the client would, say, spend X amount with you, and any time they needed stuff, they would order off this menu and then deduct from the balance. So it was almost like prepaid retainer, use as you go.
And instead of just saying, ‘Hey, I’ll write those few emails for a few hundred bucks,’ now I said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea.’ So I threw out this whoppingly high $625 entry point. I’m like, ‘Ah man, this is great. Now they have to spend 625 bucks with me as opposed to starting with a few $100 projects.’ So I started doing that, and I created what I called… My brand is Brain Hickey, and I created the Brain Hickey a la carte price list. And I had flat rates for everything, and then an hourly rate on the time for things outside of my scope. And I just put on the price list the most common projects I work on.
So then what happened is, I started having higher sales, and then people would refill as they go. Some people that only wanted a few projects, the 625 turned into a minimum. And that was my huge breakthrough, and all of a sudden, I sold more packages.
But what happened when I did that is, I’d sell all these packages, and at the same time, all these clients would come out of the woodwork saying, ‘I need projects tomorrow.’ And I’d be doing like a $125 email here and there, and it just totally bogged me down. So then I upped the price to 1000. Didn’t solve it. Then I upped it to 2000, and it didn’t solve it.
So I, same thing, audited my book of business. And I’m like, ‘Wow, so I’ve got this handful of clients that have me on retainer, and they’ve been paying me month over month for a long time. Some I’m on with for years now. And these other projects have got these other 20 clients that come out of the woodwork here and there. All of a sudden they have a bunch of work. Sometimes they don’t.’ And I realized that for me to acquire a client that has ongoing needs that I can drive a ton of value and bill monthly is way more valuable than one-and-done projects. So now with very, very rare exception, I do not do one-and-done projects.
So I started throwing out retainers, and I’d find companies… So I’ll give you some examples. Right now I work with one of the leading SaaS companies in the financial services space, and I’m an under an NDA, so I can’t share all the details, and I wish I could share the name, but I help design their campaigns. I write their campaigns. I’m presenting at their conference coming up. I work with a couple of leaders in the Amazon sales, Amazon FBA space, that have ongoing work and ongoing projects. I work with an exclusive network membership organization. I have a couple of one-off clients in the finance space. And with these people, they all have ongoing needs, ongoing funnels to be built, ongoing emails to write and sales consulting to do.
So I restructured the agreements that I put together to be flat-rate monthly retainers. And before anyone on this podcast has a panic attack about flat rate getting out of hand, I define what I’m working on. I work solely on the direct response assets. I outline them. I am unlike anyone else, where I do not do contracts. I do agreements. I have never run them by an attorney. I have no interest in doing so. The reason for doing that is, I want an out. I don’t want someone to hold my toes to the fire and say, ‘Hey, you got to keep working with us,’ if it’s not a good fit.
So I do things kind of against the business norm, where my proposals are very clearly defined, the type of work, roughly what they can expect from me, and I provide a little latitude. And yes, there’s times that it can get overwhelming here and there, and then there’s times where it gets really light, and you’re on a retainer, and you got a week of breathing room with nothing going on, or two weeks of breathing room.
So for me, my retainers now start at 5000 a month, and they are required to have a $50,000 investment with me over a 12-month period, which is usually a combination of retainer and success fee. And I’m at capacity now. That is the new rate, should the right opportunity come up and if time becomes available. That’s the structure. But all of my clients now are paying, and I just ran the numbers, and there’s a couple low outliers from older ones, but on average it’s 3500 a retainer per month. And that number is more skewed because of a couple of, like I said, small clients that I enjoy working with but aren’t… They’ve been kind of grandfathered in in their pricing.
And when I’ve done that, I’ve found that cashflow is solved. I have retainers coming in on the first of the month, some on the 15th, some on the 27th, and it’s very predictable. And the lifetime value of acquiring one client is $50,000 of income, which is way better than selling one project.
I’ve actually done that for two reasons. One is the brain power it takes me for a brand discovery, just to even write one sales letter or a series of emails, it’s the same discovery that I need to do to work with a company for five years. So it’s easier for me. And I’ve found that my limiting factor for growth was my brain power. Some people really are good at switching gears. I have limited capacity to switch from writing for in the finance world to writing about building an Amazon business. It’s like you got to put on two different hats.
So I try to say, ‘Hey, who can I bring the highest value to? Who needs me the most? And how do I position myself to provide ongoing that’s a win-win for everybody and allows me to channel my limited brain power and creative power into the most centrally focused areas?’
And when I made that shift, by the way, by letting some clients go and shifting this model, I had a bunch of comments come through. Most of my clients are in Asana.. ‘Adam, this is best work we’ve seen from you.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh. Cool. It’s because I fired 80% of my client base and I’m spending more time building these relationships and serving people like you.’ And so it’s worked out for everybody so far.
Rob: So it sounds like you shifted, if I’m getting this right, you shifted from billing by hour or by project to billing for value, is that right?
Adam: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rob: So you don’t promise a certain number of hours or even necessarily a certain number of deliverables, although there are some expectations around deliverables when you set up a project. What is a typical project look like?
Adam: Yes, deliverables are defined. It can be tough. I don’t put it on volume. No, I do not bill per project or per hour. I had consistent price increases when I was billing hourly, and I found that it just doesn’t make sense, because the work that goes into a billable hour is one and a half or two-to-one based on the emails back and forth beforehand, handling all the billing and invoicing after. So even if you’re charging now for rare occasion referrals or folks that I enjoy working with or referrals from people whose relationship I really want to foster, I’ll bill 250 an hour. But for that one hour of time, it might be a phone call beforehand to figure out what we’re going to talk about, make sure it’s a good fit. And then I’m sending emails back and forth. And then we have our invoicing time. So it just doesn’t seem to make sense.
So the proposals define the deliverables. I’ve literally had this become an issue two times and two times only, one of which was a poor client fit, and they were very well aware that they were taking advantage of the arrangement and agreed to double the price. It didn’t work out in the long run. It was a great experience, a great learning experience. And the other one also understood, and we also doubled the retainer. And that’s been the same for a number of years.
So I define the areas of the business that I work on. And I kind of look at it as me aligning alongside their business as like an outsourced employee in a way. So I take ownership of all of their direct response campaigns, because I am auditing them beyond the copywriting. I’m looking at the numbers. I’m rewriting the Facebook ad copy. I’m working with their vendors. I’m auditing their deck for their webinars, all the analytics behind them to optimize performance. I’m writing their emails and looking through…
I don’t touch tech, by the way. I only consult and write in Google Docs. That is it. So they know that out of the gate. I’ll work alongside their team. That’s part of criteria. They need to have people in place to handle their email set up and all that. I do not want to touch tech, because to me, it is not my strength. If it would take an average person who’s maybe good at setting a campaign up, an active campaign, 10 minutes, it’d take me an hour. And they’re not paying for my expertise to set up the tech. So I make it very clear. I consult. I optimize. I review data. I write. Period. That is what I do. And I’ll audit sales calls and train sales teams as well, or whoever’s running the sales calls. But that’s how I have defined those parameters. Does that answer your question?
Rob: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think we had some questions also around the success fee that you mentioned?
Adam: Yeah. So that can be a tricky area for people. But I had some really big wins on negotiating success fees, and I’ll kind of talk through three ways to do it depending on the size of the company.
So some smaller… I’ll tell you what. This is a lot easier with smaller companies. And my favorite companies to work with are smaller companies. And by smaller, I mean smaller in personnel, not revenue. I worked with a company who was only doing about $400,000 a year with a couple of people, and that was nearly 100% profit for them, you know? So these folks who are doing 400,000 divided by… It’s $200,000 a person, where there’s room to give me a cut, and they get hands-off, right? So even though the numbers don’t sound big and hairy, it’s super profitable.
And when you start working with larger companies, more of a corporate structure, it gets more difficult to navigate. So option one is to define per funnel or per scope. So for this last project I worked on with a client, I negotiated a percentage of profit for the sales that came from the funnel that I worked on. So this was a premium priced, a $6500 to $15,000 coaching program that they ran in a group setting. So there were launches. And I got five percent of the profit from those launches. And launch one they did before my involvement, $100,000. And when I got involved, they did over $200,000. This was a quarterly launch, by the way. So those are some big numbers. They were pretty happy to pay to help them double their launch. And I took a percentage, and it was really great as we’re working, and they’re on retainer, and then I’m getting paid as they get paid based on the payment plan. So that’s option one.
Option two is just overall profitability. I’m working with a company now, and that’s how I’ve structured it. I started working with them from the beginning, and since I am a key part of driving their sales, I negotiated a flat rate of a percent of profit. And I define that very clearly, by the way, because what I’ve found in the past is, if you don’t have your parameters defined very simply and easy to track… Because I was really scared to do success fees, because I have an inherent distrust when it comes to money, because I’ve seen and unfortunately been the recipient of slimy behavior as numbers get fudged and things don’t want to get paid. SO I define what profit means. And we define profit as gross sales minus ad spend minus management fees minus salesperson commission. Very clear. There’s no other variables behind. So the other option, again, like I said, is overall profitability instead of per project.
And the final way to do it, which I’m in the middle of doing one right now… Which by the way, as a side note, with this company, I started with them almost a year ago now, and I recently was able to get them… Because they had consistent projects every month, so they were a higher paying client but not on retainer. And what I ended up doing was saying, ‘Listen you guys. Here’s your monthly average with me. And I see…’ By the way, I know I’m going on a slight tangent, but I think this will help people start to negotiate these retainers, especially for consistent work. I said, ‘Your monthly fee with me on average has been about 3400 bucks. But what happens is I know you don’t want to reach out to me, because every time you call or email or we set up a call, when we’re going off this menu, I’m billing per time. So you say, ‘Hey, I want to make sure it’s worth reaching out to Adam.’‘
I said, ‘You’ve seen the impact I bring to the business, the growth I’ve brought to the business at 3200 a month. How do you feel about switching to retainer at 4000 a month plus a success fee that we define together. Now you don’t have to worry about this, because our interests are aligned and that extra $400 a month, who cares? Right? You’re going to call me when you need something.’
And what’s happened is, now I’ve become very, very heavily ingrained. They’ve brought me in on bigger projects. Now I’m part of their sales outreach plan. And the way that we’re negotiating these success fees is, I have asked the client to define the top three most valuable outcomes that I can drive for their business, and then we’re putting quantifiable metrics behind it.
So their area, this company, I’m involved in many moving parts of their business, and we just did a whole new rebrand, essentially. It’s hard to put a value on redoing a homepage, right? So we are defining the key metrics and then working the success fee based on driving those metrics.
And you do need to understand when you’re doing these retainers, there’s things that you’re going to be asked to do and contributing to that are in a gray area beyond your area of expertise, and to me it’s for building the relationship. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘No thanks. You spent $48,000 with me this year, but I’m not going to spend the extra hour for the phone call to help you out.’ Right? The lifetime value of a client in this model is tremendous, and when you do the math, you don’t need that many clients to live a very comfortable life.
Kira: Wow, Adam, there’s so much we want to ask you still. I know we’re running out of time. So think my last question for you is, I know you are really good about thinking bigger about your business and reflecting. I know that from previous conversations we’ve had with you. How can other copywriters run their business more like a CEO rather than a freelancer? How can they think bigger about their own business? It’s a big question, I know.
Adam: Yeah, no, that’s good. So for me, I am fortunate enough to come fro a business background before being a copywriter. And I’ve found that there are so many copywriters who are probably more talented than me and less busy. And it has nothing to do with skill. And I think that most people spend an overwhelming amount of time honing their craft, which, by the way, I think is incredibly important. I chew through books like you wouldn’t believe. I’m just a sponge honing my craft.
But when you start to shift and dedicate time to business growth and auditing your book of business and looking from the outside and defining what you want out of your business and what success means to you, you’ll start to see patterns. And follow the patterns and stick to them. Money is tempting. Don’t say yes to the deal because it’ll pay.
I love sales, and there’s nothing greater than closing a big sale, and there’s nothing worse than the dread of having to fulfill sale after you’ve sold it. And to me, defining my non-negotiables was one. Number two, looking at my greatest successes and figuring out how to replicate those is the second thing. And then the third is learning how to say no.
And I will tell you that I say no to probably 90% of the projects that cross my plate. That’s not an exaggeration, either. There were plenty of opportunities that came through. There was a leading supplement company that, if I mentioned the name, you would say, ‘I know them.’ And they tried very aggressively to get me onboard to take over all their direct response. And I knew based on what I had a taste for in our initial conversations that they were going to continually beat me up on price, and they would have incredibly unrealistic expectations. And it would have paid well, but I was not willing to compromise. And it wasn’t something… To me, that niche doesn’t resonate with my values based on what they were selling and how they were selling it. So that’s a no.
But making sure your values align with what you want out of a business, and then learning to… Even when it’s hard and horrifying, when you have someone willing to pay you a ton of money, you got to say no if it’s not a good fit. And that was when I had that breaking point. I had literally just said no to… By the way, this launch I said no to, I still ended up… It was a friend of a friend, so I did some hourly consulting just to help out to pad the relationship. And their first launch, they’re going to break seven figures. And I said no to that project. And I was going to have a success fee on that. Would have done really well. And it wasn’t a good fit, and I still don’t regret saying no. And in that same month refunded another $7000 project for a very simple funnel design.
And it’s tough, but in the end, I can’t even tell you how much it’s been worth it.
Rob: Yeah, I mean, when it comes to lifestyle, there’s very few trade-offs that make it worth it, so…
I’m just scribbling notes. There’s so many good takeaways from this interview, Adam, and we really appreciate taking the time to join us. If people want to connect with you or learn more about what you’re doing, you mentioned you’ve got a terrible website, but where can they go to just get to know you better?
Adam: Yeah, good question. So you’re welcome to go to my terrible website.
Kira: It’s also not terrible at all, by the way. I checked it out.
Adam: It’s brainhickey.com. And anyone can reach out to me personally. I have no problem answering questions on the fly. I’m very passionate about helping other writers get paid what they’re worth and helping them grow their business. So you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And then if folks are interested, I can get you guys a link. I’m trying to find it, because I don’t know the domain off the top of my head. But I do have that 12-step email formula course coming up that’s… It’s behind production. I have the first few videos done, and I’m dripping those out as a free series. And then obviously, if people are interested in purchasing it, there will be an avenue for that. But the videos, the three free videos that I put together, will be released very soon. And if it’s okay, I can send you a link for those.
Rob: We’ll put in the show notes. And then you also hang out in The Copyright Club Facebook group occasionally, so every once in a while we’ll see you pop in there, which is good.
Adam: Yeah, absolutely. My name’s Adam Bensman. You can find me in that group. I like to participate there as well.
Kira: Thank you, Adam. This has been incredible. Thank you for sharing so much and being so transparent about your business and processes and pay and structure. Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, my pleasure. Kira, Rob, thank you both. It was great to be here, and I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity, and a privilege to be part of this podcast, which I didn’t share with you earlier, but as soon as I ended up joining the group, I found the podcast. Like, ‘Man, one day I’d love to be on there.’ So thanks for having me.
You’ve been listening to The Copywriter Club Podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show from Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive, available on iTunes. If you like what you’ve heard, you can help us spread the word by subscribing at iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, a full transcript, and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.
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